JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Tiger Woods stepped from behind a microphone, thankful to be done with a short interview that felt like an intrusion. He took 23 questions, most of them about his golf, a few others about his left leg, then walked off without looking at anyone.
“That’s why you guys listen,” he muttered under his breath, “and I play.”
He was as dismissive as ever, another example of how much has changed in his world, and how little he realizes it.
He is not the Tiger Woods he once was.
Such bravado used to be accepted from Woods because he always backed it up.
On the golf course, he set an unparalleled standard of excellence. Starting Thursday, he’ll compete in the PGA Championship without having won anything in nearly two years. His agent said he once rejected 100 emails a day from companies wanting to get involved with the world’s most famous athlete. In the 16 months since Woods returned from a sex scandal, he still doesn’t have a corporate logo on his golf bag. His only new endorsement is a Japanese heat rub.
One thing that still looks the same is that red shirt on Sunday, yet even that has lost some of its meaning.
“That’s his trademark,” Graeme McDowell said. “Really, I think that’s all it is right now. What it means to him is obviously a different thing. What it means to the rest of us … it’s not really something to be intimidated by anymore.”
McDowell, who won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach last summer, still considers Woods to be a special player. But after more than a year of finishing in the middle of the pack, or finishing the final round before the leaders even tee off, or not even playing because of recurring injuries to his left leg, Woods is more like just another player in the field.
No. 1 in the world a year ago, he’s now No. 30.
“Mystique is not something that’s measurable,” McDowell said. “It’s when you stand on the tee box with him and you get the feeling you’re in the presence of greatness. When someone shows themselves as flawed and human … what Tiger was doing all for years and years was superhuman. He was imposing himself on players just by being there.
“Until he starts winning again, he’s not going to get that back.”
Some things haven’t changed. Woods still draws the biggest crowds, tournaments sell more tickets and golf is more interesting when he plays. Among his peers, he has always been popular because of the way he plays golf and because the TV interest he created made them all rich. They love having him as a teammate at the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup. He is one of the guys that week.
But do they really know him?
Did they ever?
Mark O’Meara was his best friend, more like a big brother, for many years until O’Meara remarried and moved to Houston. They talk sporadically and see each other even less. Woods remains close to Notah Begay, who rarely plays on tour these days. He plays practice rounds with Arjun Atwal, another member at Isleworth Country Club, outside Orlando.
Stewart Cink was among his biggest supporters when Woods first was exposed for cheating on his wife after Thanksgiving 2009. They have been playing golf since they were juniors and joined the PGA Tour about the same time. Cink once told a story of how his mother went back onto the course after his round because she wanted to watch Woods play.
“I don’t feel like I know him as well as I used to,” Cink said. “I never knew him that well, but now I feel like I hardly know him at all. I wouldn’t say that’s a big difference. I think he may be gun shy about getting close to people, either his fellow competitors like me, caddies, the media. He’s a really private guy. But once you get to know him, he’s really good to be around.
“He’s not out here to be social. That’s not his goal,” Cink said. “He has a big sheet of goals to accomplish. His social life is not his No. 1 priority, nor should it be.”
Now that Woods has moved into his new home in south Florida, he has practiced on occasion at the Bear’s Club, home of Jack Nicklaus. Robert Allenby saw him there two weeks ago and said he felt Woods seemed more at ease with his life. At tournaments, he sees no change.
“We see him come out and practice, play and get out of here,” Allenby said. “He’s always been a big one to save his energy for the tournaments. But that’s the beauty of Tiger. A lot of stuff has happened in his life. When it comes to his golf, he still tried to keep that the same. That’s impressive. I know what it’s like to go through a divorce, and it can get seriously ugly.”
That falls in line with what Woods said in 2000 to Golf Digest senior writer Jaime Diaz, who has been around Woods longer than any other journalist. “To live a sane life, I have to be ruthless sometimes. Put up a wall, be cold, say no. If I didn’t, I would never have my own time and space, which is vital to me to achieve what I want in life.”
Even so, some of his peers thought he would return a different person - perhaps spend a little more time in the locker room, or play charity events for other players beyond his closest friends.
For all he’s done to wreck his image, most everyone on tour wants to see him return to greatness. Even though there is a new wave of players starting to emerge, like U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, it’s hard to find anyone who won’t say that golf still needs Woods.
“Tiger still is golf, really,” McDowell said. “It’s exciting to have him back.”
Cink could see parallels with David Duval, an enigma when he was No. 1 in the world, portraying a coldness behind those wraparound shades. His game went into a freefall, partially brought on by injuries, and when Duval was at his lowest, he showed a softer side and became more appealing.
Woods has never warmed to the media, mastering the art of saying very little, but with a smile.
The shield now is a cement wall.
Woods once said he never read anything, and even turned down the TV when one of his friends was playing, because the media had opinions without having all the facts. Now he reads everything. He will be the first to admit that the calamity in his personal life is no one’s fault but his own. But he thinks the media has made it personal.
His answers are more clipped. Asked last week how long it has been since his leg felt this strong, Woods replied, “Years,” without saying how many. How long since he stopped having to put ice on his knee? “A while ago,” he said.
It would be foolish to think that Woods can never get back to the top, maybe not as dominant as he was before, but still the player to beat. Remember, he won 14 majors in his first 12 years, and that wasn’t an accident. He was that good.
His was the one score that always mattered.
“You never had to scroll down to find it, did you?” Ian Poulter said.
The PGA Championship last year is when he first started working with Sean Foley. Progress is hard to measure because Woods took a two-month break in the winter and then went four months, last week at Firestone, before he completed a tournament.
Earlier this year, he kept saying he needed more rounds to fine tune his swing. So why not play more tournaments? “Because I have a family. I’m divorced,” Woods snapped in March. “If you’ve been divorced with kids, then you would understand.”
He is sharing parental duties with his ex-wife. The weeks that Woods signed up to be with their two children were the weeks he never played golf, which is why he said he could not play in Greensboro, N.C., in two weeks, even if that was the only way to extend his season.
Physically, he looked as strong as ever at the Bridgestone Invitational. He had too many sloppy stretches, not unusual for someone who had not played a full round of golf since the Masters.
Mentally? Emotionally? Only Woods knows.
“I think he’s found it difficult to pull his personal issues and separate them from his professional life, and I think it’s affected his game,” said Stuart Appleby, a fellow member at Isleworth. “His temperament, his patience … that’s been tested and tested and tested. He senses the public doesn’t look at him in a perfect light the way they once did.”
A PGA Tour official was talking the other day about the best shot he ever saw from Woods. There are plenty of choices. Woods chipped in for eagle from mangled rough on the 18th green in Japan to force a playoff in the 2001 World Cup. Yes, there was some luck involved. Then again, Woods had become accustomed to good fortune. The chip-in at the Masters when his ball hung on the lip for a full second. Or that 35-foot birdie putt at Kapalua to beat Ernie Els in a playoff.
He has gone from making every right move to taking every wrong turn.
Nothing is going his way.
Woods made his return to golf last week, and even while finishing 18 shots behind, he became a focal point Sunday evening. His ex-caddie Steve Williams, angry at the timing and the way Woods fired him last month, celebrated an eighth win at Firestone, this time with new boss Adam Scott.
Williams called it “the best win I’ve ever had.”
It was a direct shot at Woods, with whom Williams won 13 majors among 72 wins worldwide. Williams has pledged to write a book, although he has a non-disclosure agreement, as does most everyone who goes to work for Woods.
One reason Woods didn’t want Williams to work the U.S. Open for Scott is that it would add another layer of controversy to a career that could do without it. Ultimately, it turned into another sordid chapter in a soap opera that shows no sign of ending.
And to think that for the longest time, Woods only made news because of his golf.
Nick Faldo, a six-time major champion who now works for CBS Sports, said winning used to be a “foregone conclusion” for Woods. At the moment, nothing is certain.
“Tiger has definitely lost his aura right now,” Faldo said.